It’s well known that owls have an acute sense of hearing — some species, such as the barn owl, hunt nocturnally by sound alone. An owl’s asymmetrically-placed ears are located beneath the feathers at the edge of its facial discs. This placement, along with the shape of the external ear canals, is thought to contribute to an owl’s keen ability to locate sound. The flesh-colored fold of skin that you see in front of this barred owl’s ear is movable, and reflects and concentrates sound waves coming from behind the bird.
A study of coyote prey (through stomach contents) in the Adirondack Mountains of New York revealed that beavers were second only to white-tailed deer. This photograph shows that, possibly for the last time this winter, a coyote recently took advantage of a still-frozen-but-fast-thawing pond by walking across it in an attempt to reach an active beaver lodge. Once there the coyote attempted to dig into it in order to reach the inhabitants. A hard, two-to three-foot-thick wall of frozen mud, logs and sticks kept the beavers well protected, as it was designed to.
While we don’t see raccoons much in the winter, it isn’t because they’ve been hibernating. Rather, during cold spells, they seek shelter, often in hollow trees, where they remain for up to a month at a time in a fairly lethargic state (but not true hibernation). If the temperature at night rises above freezing, raccoons are out foraging. Lately their tracks have been very evident, signaling that their nights of inactivity are coming to an end. There isn’t much food for them to find this time of year, so for the most part they are living off the fat that they accumulated last fall.
At least one porcupine got a jump on humans this sugaring season. A porcupine eats outer tree bark in order to access the phloem (layer of inner bark cells that transport nutrients) and cambium (produces phloem and xylem cells) layers of a tree, its primary winter diet. In eating these layers, the porcupine unintentionally cuts into the xylem, or sapwood, where water and dissolved minerals (sap) are transported between the roots and crown of the tree. Unintentionally, porcupines tap the trees whose phloem and cambium they eat. In this case, the weather had warmed up enough to cause pressure in the tree, which in turn caused the sugar maple’s sap to flow just as a hungry porcupine happened along. Soon thereafter, the temperature dropped, causing the sap to freeze, forming icicles. While they looked good enough to sample, one whiff of them told me that sap was not their sole ingredient! (They were located beneath the porcupine’s den in a hollow tree, from which urine flows freely.)
Striped skunks are nocturnal and, for the most part, semi-dormant in the winter, especially during cold spells. The females often gather in communal dens in groups as large as 15. Come mid-February the polygamous males become very active, searching far and wide for mates. Although the mating season doesn’t peak until mid-March, tracks throughout woods and fields confirm that the breeding season is in full swing. During a typical night a skunk may cover ¼ to ½ a square mile, but during the breeding season, this increases to 4 or 5 square miles.
It’s fairly obvious when there are active porcupines in the woods, as they leave all kinds of signs. The females, who often spend the day in a hollow tree or rock den, come out at night to eat (males often spend several days up in a tree), and leave very pronounced 6” – 9” trails back and forth to their feeding trees. Along this trail, in addition to an occasional quill, there are often pellets of scat as well as urine, which both your eyes and your nose can detect. Porcupines discard the tips of hemlock branches when they’re through eating the tender buds and leaves up in the canopy, and consequently the ground under a feeding tree is often littered with “nip twigs.”
The relatively warm, wet start to winter has provided us with the opportunity to see riverside tracks that might otherwise not be evident. Raccoons are known for their ability to go anywhere and get into anything and the reason for this dexterity is revealed in their tracks. Both front and hind feet have five long toes. Although the “thumb” is not opposable, it is long enough to grasp things. Because of this dexterity, raccoon tracks can vary widely. In mud and snow, they often resemble small human hands. Typically the toes of the front feet are more splayed out than those of the hind feet.
The gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), although peppery gray on top, has reddish-brown fur on its sides, chest and the back of its head, which explains why it is sometimes mistaken for a red fox. Its tail has a distinct black stripe along the top, and a black tip (red fox tails have a white tip). Gray foxes are shier and more secretive than red foxes, and are seen much less frequently. Probably the characteristic for which the gray fox is best known is its ability to climb trees. The claws of the gray fox’s front feet are more curved than those of the red fox – an adaptation for climbing. They are very skillful climbers, and once a gray fox has shinnied up the trunk of a tree to a limb, it will jump from branch to branch in pursuit of prey, such as squirrels.
Camel crickets are named for their humpback appearance. We don’t often see these wingless insects, for they prefer dark, damp habitats such as under stones and logs, where we don’t often look. However, when there are extreme weather conditions, such as excessive rainfall or the extended periods of hot, dry weather which we have experienced this summer, camel crickets are attracted to damp cellars and crawl spaces, giving us an opportunity to admire their impressive legs. Often mistaken for spiders, camel crickets do have long legs, but only six, not eight, of them. Their two hind legs are obviously longer and stronger than the other four, and enable this cricket to jump three feet high, a skill they use for defense against predators. A local blog reader reports that three nights in a row (camel crickets are nocturnal), due to the force of its jump, a camel cricket tripped a small have-a-heart trap set in their cellar for mice. (Thanks to the Choukas for photo op.)
This is pure conjecture, but here goes. Barred Owls are known to consume small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. I have repeatedly encountered a Barred Owl lately near a pool of water in a brook that has all but dried up. Fish have become trapped in this pool due to the dryness of the summer, and are easy pickings for predators. Even though studies have shown that fish are a very small percentage of a Barred Owl’s diet (2.5% in owls from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut during the breeding season), I am betting that the owl that I flushed yesterday that was perched right next to the isolated pool in the brook was spending the day (and night?) at his favorite fishing hole. Three times it took off from its perch as I approached, but only flew a few feet away each time. Perhaps fish or frogs kept it from disappearing further into the woods.
Hardy birds that they are, Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest nesting birds — you can find them on nests in January, February and March, even in northern New England. Eggs are incubated for about a month, typically in March or April with young usually hatching in May or June. The nestlings remain in the nest for six or seven weeks before fledging. Unable to fly until they’re ten or twelve weeks old, the fledglings follow their parents around and continue to be fed and cared for by them until the fall. These two fledglings were sticking close together as they made their raspy begging calls from high in a white pine. Both their calls and the down that was visible on their heads told me that they were this year’s young.
Porcupines leave plenty of signs where they have eaten the inner bark, or cambium layer, of a tree. Bark is missing on the trunk of the tree, leaving fresh, yellow wood exposed, which often bears incisor marks. An observation I have made over the years is that porcupines often de-bark around or near their hollow tree dens. Typically, if a tree den is used year after year, they gnaw off bark each year, sometimes eating the old, scarred portion which, due to previous chewing, lacks cambium cells. This has led me to wonder whether fresh de-barking in the vicinity of their tree den entrance might have more, or as much, to do with a porcupine’s staking out a claim on that tree than with its sustenance. I have never come across any research that even mentions this phenomenon, and would welcome feedback from anyone who has.